The Role of Gender in Civic Movements: The Case of Russian Protests Organized by Men and Women
The repressive political landscape has been shaping the lives of Russian citizens in gradually more diverse and vivid ways since 2011, when the first mass protests against the government and its decisions took place. (Robertson 2013) Trying to oppose the existing regime, resistance organizations are choosing different ways to express themselves and organize their movements in order to unite and resist dictatorship as well as fear. “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” (Lucas 1999)
This essay will first look at how political regimes shape the protests, and then study the history of resistance in Russia from 2011 to 2022 and the major organizers of the demonstrations. Then, we will look into the history of female protests worldwide and in Russia, and their typical features. It’s important to note, that although there are both male and female held pickets and actions, the scope of this essay only focuses on two organizations («Navalny team», and Feminist Anti-war Resistance), and not individual personalities.
- PROTEST THEORY
There is an understanding within social sciences of a correlation between different types of political regime and the nature of political protest: democracies view protests as part of their mundane life, having institutionalized the oppositional movements (Goldstone 2004), while totalitarian countries criminalize and repress participation in public policy-making, claiming them to be “unsanctioned”. A current example in Russia is a court practice based on the assumption that a walk in the street by a group containing more than 3 people is “conducting an unauthorized meeting” and violating the law. (article 20.2 Code of Administrative Offences of the Russian Federation)
Therefore, people in authoritarian and totalitarian contexts tend to choose more subtle forms of protests, especially jokes, memes, and puns, to avoid direct confrontation with the government. (Arkhipova and Alekseevsky 2014)
Analyzing Russian modern history, Robertson (2013) compared two datasets of protesting events (1990s vs 2007-11) to demonstrate a dramatic difference in the nature of the protest, with demands of the protestors shifting from the economical concerns to the political and human rights claims. He argues that the protest has become more symbolic than practical, more Moscow-centered than regional, and giving more capital to the organizers, who already had political ambitions and experience in organizing oppositional events. (Paniushkin 2011)
- MALE PROTESTS
December 4, 2011, sparked the beginning of a new era of protests for Russia, after the electoral campaign was visibly fraudulent. (Robertson 2013) But the so-called “snow revolution” didn’t last long, with yet another inauguration of Vladimir Putin and the statements of his press secretary Dmitriy Peskov, encouraging the nation to “smear” the protester’s livers “on the asphalt”. (Kara-Murza 2012)
That was the time when Alexey Navalny, excluded from “Yabloko” party for harming the party’s reputation with his nationalist views, had his lucky break popularizing the meme “party of crooks and thieves” and being mentioned in prime minister Dmitriy Medvedev’s tweet as a “cocksucking sheep”. (Elder 2011, 7) Alexey Navalny, oppositional leader and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, and their colleague Ilya Yashin, known to be the first protest organizers and all being put to jail, are known to be the leaders of the meetings, encouraging people to join the protest. (Elder 2011, 6) The popular slogans were rather aggressive: “The rats should go!” and “Swindlers and thieves – give us our elections back!” (Aljazeera 2011) There were around 20 speakers at the stage, mostly representing male politicians and politologists, but including two women (Yevgenia Albats, a journalist, and Yevgeniya Chirikova, a politician).
The next protest, 17-18 December, didn’t differ much, while the next one took place further away from the city centre, with gradually increasing amount of police buses and special forces, gathered to allegedly maintain peace and order. 19 people spoke from the stage with 4 women among them. (Archive 2011) Alexey Navalny was one of the speakers, encouraging protesters to chant “We are power here”, and claiming that the protests are peaceful, until the authorities try to cheat again, stating “We have enough people here to take the Kremlin … we will take what is ours.”(Vasiliyeva and Heints 2011)
Up until this point, the Moscow government was more lenient with their protest allowance “allowing” to organize meetings and demonstrations in the city center, and male protest organizers were getting a fair amount of fame, presenting their demands from the stage to the crowd of their followers.
In spring, Moscow and other big Russian cities kept protesting with no visible changes and a relatively small amount of arrests and charges. May 6, 2012, was the day of Putin’s inauguration for his third term, and the conflict escalated with police searching the oppositional leaders’ houses, starting the violent clashes with the crowd, arresting multiple people (Belton and Clover 2012) and Dmitriy Peskov (press-secretary) saying that the police was being too soft in beating the people. (Gessen 2012)
According to OVD-info analytics, an NGO collecting and analyzing data from Russian protests, the percentage of cases related to Article 20.2 that were approved by Russian courts has increased over the years. Specifically, in 2011, it was 51%, whereas in 2018, it was 77%. In Moscow, the percentage increased from 66% in 2011 to 81% in 2018. As a result, the average fine imposed for these cases has also skyrocketed, from 600 roubles to over 17,000 roubles.(OVD-info analytics)
A history of failed protests in Russia shapes our ideas that political issues concerning power distribution in male-dominated society are not enough to build a sustainable movement, and influence the protesters’ behaviour to ignite more successful action. (Krastev and Holmes 2012)
Therefore, we can summarize that in the male-led Russian protests:
- the organizers were all political figures, who could gain some capital;
- major chosen forms of protests were spectacular ones (meetings, marches, demonstrations) with the stage and influencer presenters;
- Therhetoric was fairly aggressive.
We must admit that years of acting in the context of the repressive government, with the risks of massive fines, arrests, and the possibility of receiving a criminal record, weren’t taken into account by male organizers, who prioritized personal fame and media-attracting courage over real political changes and helping the society. Most of them have fled the country, some are imprisoned, like Alexey Navalny, who to this day urges people to “not be a nation of frightened cowards” and “take to the streets” and rather ironically “fight for peace”. (Aljazeera 2022)
- FEMALE INVOLVEMENT HISTORY
Female participation in protests has been long present on the international arena. Scholars argue that women’s involvement contributes to some real policy change, although generally, women do not hold enough power to make decisions on governmental level. (Haider and Loureiro 2021) Yet, women have played important roles in organizing protests worldwide and drawing more media attention to them.
There has been a large body of research, conducted to distinguish the main traits of women-led protests in the world. Erica Chenoweth based her study on the data from mass actions aimed at overthrowing dictatorships in the period from 1945 to 2014, demonstrating a direct correlation between the female involvement in political movements and the success of the protest. (Chenoweth 2020)
A number of overall conclusions about female protests can, therefore, be made based on the WiRe Dataset:
- Female involvement brings more attention to the protest;
- The previously apolitical groups are more eager to join the protests;
- The forms of protests tend to be more peaceful;
- The creativity of forms of expression arises.
But is it true about Russian protest realia?
Feminist organizations remain unpopular in modern Russia, with many women refusing to identify as feminists, partly because of a strong negative association of feminism with the Western world, which has also been mocked in a feminizing manner (Europe being called “gayrope”, for example) (Gessen 2014)
Notwithstanding the lack of official female organizations, the proportion of women participation in mass outdoors protests has increased from 34% to 44% in the period of 2011-2019, according to the report “Counter mobilization. Moscow Protests and Regional Elections – 2019”, based on the research of demographic aspects of the protest conducted by Arkhipova et al. Women are as eager as men to express their political position publically, with the pique on August 10, 2019, when the amount of men and women at a protest were the same. (Rogova 2019)
With the equal participation of women in political actions on the topics of power distribution, women are still massively outnumbering men in demands to fight any forms of discrimination, with the famous example of the Khachaturian sisters case, that consolidated the female protest movement in 2020. (Makarenko and Pankratova 2021)
As stated previously by Chenoweth (2020), women’s protests all over the world are characterized by a high degree of mobilization, tending to be more peaceful, and having a great impact on the security forces actions, preventing them from violence against the protestors, especially if elderly women take part in the demonstrations. Since such protests have a greater effect in the authoritarian and totalitarian states, restraining their main instrument of silencing the opposition with physical threats, the whole society benefits from the fact that they include both “the feminist agenda” (i.e. glass ceiling, pay gap, maternity leave, etc) as well as issues of a wider significance (i.e. alternation of power, anti-war movements, social and economical policy, inclusion, etc). Considering the global trend, with the spread of communication technologies Russian female protests will become more institutionalized and massive, with the development of coordination structures around periphery countries and different regions of Russia, foundations and forums. This digitalization may also contribute to inventing new ways to involve less politically active groups, spreading agenda in more creative ways, and strengthening solidarity ties within a movement. (Makarenko and Pankratova 2021)
- FEMINIST ANTI-WAR RESISTANCE
Within 48 hours after Russian president Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, feminists put together a Feminist Anti-War Resistance (FAR) organization. It is a horizontally-structured, anti-hierarchical movement, with independent regional branches, united by the aim to “end this war and find a way to take a fresh look at the future of Russia and other countries in the region”, resisting governmental propaganda, and saving people endangered by governmental decisions. (Rossman, 2022)
At the moment there are tens of informal branches, hundreds of members and supporters (over 40,000 followers on Telegram), and it is rapidly expanding.
FAR members conduct free psychological support groups to activists, help find legal help for people with vocal anti-war position in Russia (Civil Rights Defenders, 2022), self-publish and distribute a newspaper (Zhenskaya Pravda newspaper (Women’s Truth)) aimed at older women who are outside the activist feminist agenda, (Serafimov, 2022), hold anti-war protest actions (e.g. “Women in black”), create DIY grave crosses in courtyards, signifying civilian casualties in Ukraine (”Mariupol5000” action), carry around “quiet picket” posters, write informational and educational anti-war slogans on banknotes and spread them around, replace price tags in stores with anti-war slogans (Gunko, 2022), spread “Missing person” anti-war posters around cities, created multiple postcards in the style of traditionally widely-celebrated holidays (8 March with glitter and feminine figures, 23 February with masculine-looking soldiers) with anti-war content poems, organized “Anti-war sick leave” movement, organized a strike-fund (WAVE, 2022)
Therefore, we can summarize that in the female-led Russian protests:
- The organizers mostly remain anonymous and gain no media capital;
- Chosen forms of protests vary significantly;
- The rhetoric is exceptionally peaceful.
This essay demonstrates the vivid difference between Russian protests organized by men and women in both strategy and aim. We have stated that in totalitarian and authoritarian regimes the opposition tends to choose more subtle ways of protesting, exploiting creative means such as jokes and posters, avoiding direct confrontation, that wouldn’t cause political change, rather than bring trouble to the daring. However, Navalny and his organization chose a different approach, claiming to obtain enough power to challenge the repressive regime, and organizing a series of demonstrations, which were mostly massive and media-covered, and with the same aggressive and power-driven rhetoric as the existing government’s one. It was then demonstrated that women’s protests tend to be more peaceful and creative throughout the world, and although Russian political landscape does not shield women from abuse and torture, Russian organisations follow the non-violent trend, working on multiple social issues in a horizontally-organized movement with no political capital gain for the members.
Therefore, comparing Feminist Anti-War Resistance movement with predominantly male Navalny’s team, we can see that they follow general patterns of female protests vs male protests.
Whilst this may have led to an idea of doom over the masculine ability to create peaceful and inclusive actions, this may not be the future, and more research needs to be conducted on Feminist Anti-war Resistance as well as other Russian anti-war organizations that are yet to arise.
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